Thursday, November 3, 2016

Throwback Thursday: A New Brand of Insanity

I am a slow writer. I am always astounded by people who say they write a draft in a month, or even in two months. I placate myself by saying such drafts must not be very good. Otherwise I think I would completely despair, close the laptop permanently, and take up life as a pig farmer. 
When I write, I open my files, and my characters stare at me from the page patiently waiting for stage directions. I give them setting, and they tap their feet. I give them description, and they cross their arms.
I say, “What do you want me to do? You’re the character! Do something! Make some plot happen!”
Meanwhile, my characters look at their nails, stifle a yawn, and reply, “You’re the writer. What do you want me to do?”
This continues until I’m so disheartened that I skip to the end and take a cue from Scarlett O’Hara. I’ll think about the middle tomorrow.
So the whole concept of NaNoWriMo has always smacked of insanity to me. It seems as if you’re just setting yourself up for failure, disappointment, and disillusionment. Not to mention a future of pig-farming.
I made one attempt at NaNoWriMo a few years ago—not to write a new novel, but to finish the one I had been working on.
It was awful from start to finish. Family responsibilities cropped up, a national holiday, and plans for the eldest gingerbread boy’s birthday party. [On a side note, that was the year in which the Christmas tree fell down the night before the party, shattering all the glass ball ornaments into the carpet. That happened at 9:00 pm, too late to vacuum as the gingerbread boys were in bed. That was also the night the power went out, leaving me with the glass shards remaining in the carpet. With a group of children coming over for a birthday party. And tons of snow outside. And no heat. Thank you, Mother Nature. Just a walk down memory lane.]
Anywho, you may be surprised after reading this that I have signed up for NaNoWriMo this year. Remember this? And this? Well, the stars have aligned, and I have a new project. A new outline. Characters who speak to me. An actual plot. AND it’s November.
So I’ve decided to push myself a bit—in the same way I pushed myself to shimmy up the rock-climbing wall and run a 5K. A sort of manic (rhymes with panic) attempt at lassoing life. We’ll see what happens. It’s certainly not going to be pretty, but that’s what revision is for, right?
Are you doing NaNoWriMo? If so, look me up. I might need a little encouragement if my characters decide to stop speaking to me.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 11.1.12

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Throwback Thursday NaNoWriMo: A Report

Well, friends, it seems as if a future in pig-farming is not imminent, thank goodness. I am beyond thrilled to report that NaNoWriMo was a success for me. Of course, it helped that there were no falling Christmas trees, no snowstorms, no power outages. There were no major illnesses, and only one trip to Urgent Care during the month of November.
At the end of 30 days, I had a complete first draft: a beginning, middle, and end, not to mention characters who spoke to me. In fact, they often wouldn’t shut up.
Winner-180x180So what did I learn from the experience?
1. I can start and finish a project quickly.
As I said in my last post, I’ve always considered myself a slow writer. Signing up for NaNoWriMo eliminated any prior conceptions or misconceptions I had about my writing speed. One caveat, though: some serious preparation was key. Before the month started, I designated a composition notebook for this project and brainstormed characters, settings, plot lines, and ideas.
2. I can use an outline.
Who knew? OK, I didn’t really have a true outline, more like a road map, but I pretty much always knew where I needed to go. I did muck around a bit when I got to the middle, but I always went back to my notebook to see what I had planned, or even just to see what possibilities existed.
3. Working five days a week (taking Saturday and Sunday off) really helped me.
The fact is that I have a family and a house as well as other responsibilities. I cannot go into my writing cave for 30 days and come out at the end without some serious consequences. I needed that weekend down time. Come Fridays, my brain was exhausted. Having those few days off gave me time to recharge my batteries, and regroup my characters and plot.
4. I work best first thing in the morning.
When I’m wearing my “mom” hat, my mind has to balance a zillion things at any given time (for example, this week I’ve got to remember band days, piano and cello lessons, two family birthdays, volunteer time at the school library, blogging assignments for two blogs, after-school Latin/chess club/bridge club/library pick-up, cub scouts, a meeting, my husband’s days at his office vs. days at home, third-grade spelling words, an immigration assignment, when the new sofa is being delivered, three Christmas parties, Christmas cards, a Nutcracker performance, a new ballet class I’ll be taking, ski club fitting, and a partridge in a pear tree.)
Do you feel overwhelmed? I do, too, on an hourly basis. Consequently, if I let my day “begin” before getting my words in, I’d never have the focus to get any writing accomplished. So I wrote when I first woke up, before anything else had a chance to rear its needy head. It was much easier to get my words done, and I was frequently done by noon. The rest of the day I felt like I’d accomplished something. I didn’t have that monkey sitting on my back prodding at my guilt gland all the time.
4. I can use other methods of tuning out the world.
On those days when I couldn’t write immediately, or when I didn’t finish by the time the school bus rolled around, I found another way to help my brain focus.
Don’t laugh. Don’t judge. Seriously.
I put on the Pandora new-age music station. I don’t normally write to music; it interferes too much. I start choreographing in my head. Too many memories, too many lyrics, too much sensory input in general.
But since I don’t listen to new-age music, there was nothing to spark a memory. There were no lyrics to give me cause for pause, and so it allowed me to tune-out all the other daily chatter that goes on, both internally and externally, and the words came easier. Strange, but it worked.
5. Quantity eventually leads to quality, and fluency helps get you there.
While writing five days a week helped me balance my other responsibilities, it did IMG_1207mean that I had to increase my word count from 1667/day to 2250/day. At the back of my notebook, I kept a chart of my daily numbers, with date, starting point, goal, and ending point, as well as the final daily word count to keep track. It got easier to write those words each day.
You’ll notice I wrote at the top, “I refuse to be derailed by migraine, monster, mandate, or muppet.” That was my way of saying no excuses. During the month of November, all of those things tried to claim my attention. I refused to let them. Even the Muppets — and that was really hard, because they were singing the Banana Boat song with Harry Belafonte.
6. Challenging myself and completing a goal is empowering.
I suffer from the imposter syndrome, but really? An imposter writing a novel in 30 days? No chance. This experience made me feel like a real writer. That’s not to say you can’t be a real writer if you don’t write a novel in 30 days. It just validated me in a way other things have not, even with an MFA from VCFA. I can’t say I’m an imposter anymore. I’m a writer. Of course, it helped that when I finished and verified my word count at the NaNoWriMo web site, I was sent a video of the people at the Office of Lights and Letters cheering for me. :)

7. The writing community is incredibly supportive. (Even though I already knew this) 
While it might have been annoying to lots of people, I posted my daily word count on Facebook. I went public, which is something the NaNoWriMo organizers suggest. It did help, too, to see comments from friends cheering me on. Thanks.
8. My own circle is incredibly supportive.
I recognize that I’m extremely lucky in being able to have a large block of time daily to write. I know many writers hold down other employment, in addition to writing and taking care of family, and I stand in awe of all that they do (I’m looking at you, Annemarie O’BrienLinden McNeilly, and Varian Johnson). I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my gingerbread man, and the understanding of my gingerbread boys, each of whom lends an ear and keeps me going.
So would I do it again?
Perhaps. If the timing was right…and I start feeling like a pig farmer.

Originally published at Quirk and Quill 12.6.12

Monday, October 24, 2016

Art and Fear

"[W]hat we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association."
                                                 -David Bayles and Ted Orland
                                                 Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

Friday, October 21, 2016


I am currently obsessed with houses. Old houses. Giant houses. Houses with far too many bedrooms and bathrooms for my small family. Houses with porte cocheres and carriage houses and barns. Houses with fireplaces and tall windows and leaded glass. Houses with peaks and turrets and bay windows and balconies. Houses with libraries and butler's pantries and multiple staircases. I even found one with an elevator.

I visit more often than I should. I scroll through pictures when I should be organizing my tax documents. I look at house plans when I should be folding laundry. But laundry gets undone almost as soon as it's done, so why bother?

If I lived in one of these houses, I would have a room of my own. In fact, I would have several rooms of my own. Probably one for each day of the week. One could be an office, one an art studio, one a dance/yoga studio, and one just for empty space where I could lie down on the floor and make snow angels, minus the snow. I'd have a guest room for anyone who wanted to come visit. I'd have a room for foreign exchange students or refugees or foster children. There would be space in the kitchen for absolutely everything. Even the plastic food storage tops. And think of the Christmas parties!

It's a lovely dream, isn't it?

The reality is more likely to be lots of dust bunnies and cobwebs. Acres of floors to clean and far too many toilets to scrub. There would be a huge mortgage, not to mention the property taxes. And oh, the maintenance. All those chimneys to have swept. The grass to mow. The roof? Oy.

Still...a library and a butler's pantry?

I think I could find a way around the dust bunnies and cobwebs for a library and a butler's pantry.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Warming Up

Before practice or performance, dancers stretch their muscles, head to toe. Not only does stretching feel amazing, it prevents injury, and allows the performers to push the limits of their physical capabilities. See here for some favorite photos of dancers pushing their limits)
Visual artists complete quick warm-up sketches or gesture drawings to loosen up the hand, and to practice before drawing more complex and detailed work.
Singers perform vocal gymnastics in preparation for a performance. Lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-lolli-POP. (That used to be my favorite.)
And we writers? We open up a scene and dive in.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve found in the past week that a warm-up really helps my process. These warm-ups are nothing elaborate, nor are they award-winning writing. They are simply meant to get the internal editor out of the way and get the words flowing when I finally do sit down with my work-in-progress.
The rules? I write one side of a page in my notebook with a freely flowing pen, top to bottom. I don’t time myself, because I don’t want to get pulled out of my process wondering if I have 5 seconds left or 15. I just write from top to bottom as quickly as I can. If I get stuck, I write something stupid until another thought comes to me.
Here are some of the topics I’ve written as warm-up:
  • A description of a city I’ve visited
  • What I’ve neglected
  • My mother
  • I must be nuts to do this
  • Leaving
  • Being eternal
  • All boundaries will disappear
  • What am I obsessed by?
  • The details of life
  • A description of my morning
Many of these topics have come from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which is more like a visit with a writing coach than plodding through a craft book. With a quick google search, you can find dozens of other writing prompts, as well as writing prompt generators.
I write three of these pages then turn to my manuscript. It doesn’t take long, and by the time I’m done, I’m easily able to transfer my attention to my manuscript. Because of the practice, my words just fly out, without any hemming and hawing, and that makes me a happy writer.
Try it and see what you think, and be sure to let me know if it works for you.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 10.4.12

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Throwback Thursday: On Becoming Revisionary

Last week, I helped a woman who is moving from a very large house (probably over 3000 square feet) to a three-bedroom apartment.
We sorted the contents of her garage into piles of garbage, piles of recycling, piles of donations, and piles of things to keep. Some things were easy to sort: the bags of trash that had been sitting for weeks; the broken picture frame; the dented metal garbage can; the bags of clothes that no longer fit.
Some things were not so easy: the dollhouse that needed a few touch-ups but still had many hours of good Barbie time left in it; the unused $600 ski rack; the deflated soccer ball.
It was not my stuff, so it was easy for me to be objective. I had no emotional attachment to any of it, no history, no story, no memories lacquering the surfaces of these objects.
They were just things.
If I were to sort the contents of my own garage, I might not have such an easy time. We humans have a touch of the squirrel in us, a touch of the magpie. A response of “Oh! Pretty!” A desire to own and consume. We place an emotional value on things. With a nod to Tim O’Brien, some of us carry peaches in heavy syrup when we’re slashing our way through a war zone.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
In contrast, others carry very little at all, preferring to live a Thoreau-like deliberate existence. A guy named Dave created the 100-Thing Challenge, the goal of which is to “live a life of simplicity, characterized by joyfulness and thoughtfulness.”
He explains that so many of us feel “stuck in stuff” and the way to get unstuck is to reduce (getting rid of stuff), refuse (to get more stuff), and rejigger (your priorities).
simonevans_everythingihave_closeThe artist Simon Evans created a personal inventory cataloguing everything he owns. Sometimes, we need a proper inventory to see what’s what.
I fear I would brilliantly fail the 100-Thing Challenge. I suspect I have more than 100 things just in the drawers of my desk, and if I were to create a visual personal inventory, it definitely wouldn’t fit on one poster.
You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
We writers collect words. We drape our stories with them, roll ourselves up in them, and swing them around until our worlds are filled with them. We say, “Oh! Pretty!” and hang onto them. We are unable to see that many of these words, while perfectly serviceable, do not fit our need.
As I approach revising my current manuscript, I’m trying to become a revisionary. I’m trying to see what’s there, to see what’s necessary and what’s not. It’s hard to be objective about the verbal stuff hanging out in my manuscript file-garage.
When I get to the end—when I get to what’s left behind—I’m hoping I’ll be left with what really matters. I’m hoping I’ll be left with an economy of words that are deliberate and that sing. That’s becoming revisionary.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 1.21.13

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Throwback Thursday: You Want a Story?

You say you want a story? A true-life story, an end-of-the-road type story?
Yeah, yeah, that kind.
A what’s-important story?
You got a story or not?
Alright, alright, keep your shirt on. I’m thinking, ok? Ok.
Ok. I’ve got it. Here’s your story. So my grandfather used to fly planes during WWII.
Yeah, you know those things in the sky?
He was a test pilot. And one day, he was supposed to test fly this one plane, only for some reason his emergency pack wasn’t complete. See, they were supposed to carry a bar of emergency chocolate, and his pack had no chocolate. Yeah, I know, right? They had emergency chocolate! Smart brass, eh?
So my grandfather’s missing his chocolate.
No, I don’t know what happened to it—maybe he ate it one night when the mess hall had fiber fish for dinner. Maybe it melted in the Georgia sun. Maybe the rats got it, or the cockroaches carried it away. Who knows? That part’s not important to the story. For whatever reason, his pack had no chocolate.
So what did Grampy do? Well, he had two choices. One, fly the plane anyway, and risk getting written up for testing a plane without a complete pack.
Not so good.
No, not so good. Or, he could simply get a replacement bar of emergency chocolate.
I’d go for the chocolate, myself.
That’s exactly what he did. So the replacement bar of chocolate is across the base, and Grampy runs for it. The guys are waiting for him, checking their watches, checking the schedule. Come on, Sam, they say under their breath. Hurry up!
But there’s no Sam.
The minutes tick by. No Sam.
They prep the planes for flight. No Sam.
Five full minutes pass, and the other test pilots are sweating, there in the hot Georgia sun. “Go get Remus!” one of them says, disgusted that Sam’s not back yet.
Remus obliges. He’s got a full pack, complete with regulation chocolate. Sam will have to wait for the next group of planes. Remus will take Sam’s plane.
So Remus goes up.
And his plane goes down.
And Grampy not only had his emergency bar of chocolate, he had his life.
That’s some story.
Yeah, ain’t it, though?
Exceptin’ I don’t believe it.
It’s true, every word!
Every word?
Well, I made up the name Remus.
And Georgia. I don’t know if he was in Georgia.
But everything else is true, I swear it.
Originally published at Quirk and Quill 3.21.13